Trump Still Rewriting the Playbook

Trump’s single best moment, arguably, was when he rubbed in the fact that millions of dollars of Clinton TV ads attacking him—ads unanswered, deliberately, by the frugal Trump campaign—had proven completely ineffective. In that single stroke, unrehearsed and devastatingly accurate, Trump reminded everyone how and why he earned his place on the world’s most exclusive stage.

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By Andrew Thomas | September 27, 2016

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Whether Donald Trump wins the presidency or falls short and is remembered for, among other things, igniting “Trump’s Rebellion” against political correctness, he has left an indelible mark on modern American politics. It is a commonplace that Trump has shattered conventional wisdom about presidential campaigns. A brief recap of some of these milestones is helpful to appreciate fully how he approached his first debate with Hillary Clinton.

When Trump launched his campaign in June 2015, only 3 percent of Republicans supported him. He suffered from a negative image overall among GOP voters. In short order, he completely flipped those numbers and overwhelmed his opponents by deploying what became signature traits. Audacity, Manhattan-burnished salesmanship, a keen instinct for public opinion and his opponent’s jugular: all fueled his rise.

Trump’s supposed gaffes fizzled out and were forgotten. When packaged and recycled in TV ads, they likewise had no discernible effect. In the general election, he eschewed advertising and data-driven microtargeting of voters, recognizing that voters in presidential elections draw information and make their decisions from free media coverage and many other sources. In short, Trump rewrote the playbook.

The unconventional style which propelled him to the GOP nomination would be put to the test once again in his first debate with Hillary Clinton. Forgoing mock debates and the other standard preparation tools for presidential aspirants, he strode on stage and took his place next to a seasoned political performer. Trump came ready for hardy combat against the first female presidential nominee of a major party—an aggressive posture that also defied political conventional wisdom.

From the outset, Clinton did her best to bait him. Billionaire Trump critic Mark Cuban was planted in the front row, among other Clinton gambits. She tried to rankle Trump by saying he had borrowed $14 million from his father, paid no federal taxes, and “stiffed” small contractors who worked for him.

Trump responded with tough jabs that galvanized his base of supporters. He said he would release his tax returns when she divulged the 33,000 missing emails from her tenure as Secretary of State. When Clinton claimed her email scandal was the result of a mere mistake, he had none of it. “That was done purposely,” Trump noted, and reminded everyone of her staff taking the Fifth Amendment.

Trump was at his passionate best when he tapped into broad themes of national distress. These included denunciations of trade deals allowing foreign countries to steal jobs, deteriorating “Third World” roads and airports inferior to those of other nations, and urban streets that too often lack something Clinton refuses to say: “law and order.”

Clinton similarly appealed to her base, with outlandish rhetoric. She said Trump had a “long record of engaging in racist behavior,” something one would expect to hear from a left-wing philosophy professor instead of the Democratic presidential nominee. She alleged America has a “gun epidemic,” an unsupported leftist claim that blames weapons for crimes instead of criminals.

Trump’s single best moment, arguably, was when he rubbed in the fact that millions of dollars of Clinton TV ads attacking him—ads unanswered, deliberately, by the frugal Trump campaign—had proven completely ineffective. In that single stroke, unrehearsed and devastatingly accurate, Trump reminded everyone how and why he earned his place on the world’s most exclusive stage.


Andrew Thomas is a Fellow with the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and Director of the Empower the States Project. A graduate of Harvard Law School, Thomas was twice elected Maricopa County Attorney, district attorney for greater Phoenix, Arizona. He is the author of four books, including Clarence Thomas: A Biography and The People v. Harvard Law: How America’s Oldest Law School Turned Its Back on Free Speech.